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Astronomers chemically map a significant portion of the Milky Way

The chemistry of the Milky Way's nearby spiral arms
Red indicates areas with lots of heavier elements, blue indicates
areas dominated by hydrogen and helium. Click for original image.

Astronomers have now used today’s modern survey telescopes — on Earth and in space — to map the chemistry of a large portion of the Milky Way’s nearby spiral arms, revealing that the arms themselves are rich in heavier elements, indicating greater age and the right materials to produce new stars and solar systems like our own.

If the Milky Way’s spiral arms trigger star births as predicted, then they should be marked by young stars, aka metal-rich stars. Conversely, spaces between the arms should be marked by metal-poor stars.

To confirm this theory, as well as create his overall map of metalicity, Hawkins first looked at our solar system’s galactic backyard, which include stars about 32,000 light years from the sun. In cosmic terms, that represents our stellar neighborhood’s immediate vicinity.

Taking the resultant map, the researcher compared it to others of the same area of the Milky Way created by different techniques, finding that the positions of the spiral arms lined up. And, because he used metalicity to chart the spiral arms, hitherto unseen regions of the Milky Way’s spiral arms showed up in Hawkins’ map. “A big takeaway is that the spiral arms are indeed richer in metals,” Hawkins explained. “This illustrates the value of chemical cartography in identifying the Milky Way’s structure and formation. It has the potential to fully transform our view of the Galaxy.”

You can read the science paper here [pdf]. Based on this initial mapping effort, it appears that it will not be long before a large percentage of our own galaxy will be mapped in this manner.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.


The print edition can be purchased at Amazon. Or you can buy it directly from the author and get an autographed copy.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Boobah

    Assuming the picture is at all accurate, what strikes me is how ignorant I am, especially in the “knowing things that ain’t so” sense. I’d thought Sol was A) much closer to the galaxy’s edge and B) actually in one of the spiral arms, rather than between a couple.

    And while I’d known the Milky Way had a bit of a bar, I’d thought the spirals were fewer but wider. Which might explain why I thought Sol was in one of those wider arms.

  • Boobah: Don’t put too much confidence in that map of the Milky Way. It is merely at present best guess, and it is also much too neat to be real.

    The Sun has fortunately been traveling in a relatively quiet region, dubbed the local bubble, for a very long time, which has prevented us from experiencing more extinction events coming from beyond the solar system. It sits inside an arm, but on its edge.

  • wayne

    The Local Group of Galaxies
    Anton Petrov (2018)

  • Alex Andrite

    Crum … I will keep my hard copy of “Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” anyway.
    Always good to have a hard copy.
    Just in case.

  • Col Beausabre

    Alex -Don’t forget your towel

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